Thursday, May 1, 2014

Who Owns the View of the Future?

It looks like this is the year that we more or less permanently live with 400 ppm CO2 in the air we breathe as a minimum level (400.55 ppm on March 30,2014). It also looks like we get a monster El Nino event, too, and though that is a more temporary event brought on by/made more intense by Global Warming. And it is our continual burning of fossil fuel hydrocarbons– oil components, methane and coal (and yes, coal is actually a hydrocarbon, too) – that are responsible by this remarkably stupid experiment that the human race is perpetrating on itself and every other living thing on our planet. Guess what – put more CO2 in the air, and the average air temperature and more importantly the average ocean surface and near surface temperatures go up. Yes, there are lag times, and the best model of our planet is that of a frozen margarita that tastes so nice and refreshing - first the ice melts before the temperature of the drink warms appreciably. Only after the ice melts will the drink really warm up fast. And oh yes, that’s taking place on our planet, too, and that is likely to NY State’s most epic Climate Change problem (alias Greenland’s ice sheet “issue”). Rising ocean levels means NY City/Long Island and related areas morph into an overpriced fish farm, and it will no longer be able to pay WNY’s bills.

Renewable energy experts often like to break our energy consumption into three aspects – electricity, heat and transportation, but it turns out that it really needs to be thought of a liquid fuels transport and electricity arrangement. The use of methane (“natural” gas, almost always mined in some way or another) is now obsolete via ground sourced heat pumps (GSHP) for most people and businesses, so with rare exceptions, we don’t need to use electric resistance heat. Such heat pumps also can drop electricity powered air conditioning demands by close to 75% for most people, too – neat trick, eh? And if we let a nearly decade old phenomena called Peak Oil (and especially Peak World Oil Exports) wreak its havoc, the increasingly higher oil prices (on average, doubling every 5 years) will do a lot of “demand destruction” and allow biofuels to replace SOME of the formerly available oil. A combination of electric freight rail taking over long distance trucking, more mass transit and EVENTUALLY (as in a long time) more sensible living (less suburban and ex-urban) could and should evolve, and that would cut down the need for a lot of automobile driving. Liquid fuels (biofuels) will be there at a price, but cutting back on automobile driving is more of an emotion and dopamine related problem than it is of logic, science and engineering. Cars and trucks are going to be a hard habit to slim back on, but transport needs are something we can cut back on, though probably never eliminate. Liquid fuels may well be the ultimate form of portable stored energy that NEED to be pricey to be used sensibly and not wasted extravagantly. At some price (a bit more than is the present norm), we can make what we need.

As for the electricity that we live with and which also can provide us with heat and cooling – it just seems to magically come out of a wire, usually made somewhere else. That arrangement is likely to continue, especially in places like NY that are not a desert. Some of it in this country will get made by PV or concentrated thermal (in deserts), but like hydroelectricity, it’s only likely to be a minor factor in our national supply. It turns out that is STILL expensive – even using equipment mass produced by the closest thing to slave labor ever conceived (as in China). The average before tax avoidance based subsidy COST (before profits) for PV in NY is 59 cents/kw-hr at a 7.5%/yr “money cost”. To sell it at last quarter’s wholesale electricity price, that generated energy needs at least a 50 c/kw-hr subsidy, which usually comes by having rich people pay less of their taxes in some amazingly convoluted manners.

What most science fiction writers missed (and they did get cell phones, the internet, computers, nuclear reactor “oopsies” and some weaponry that is like nobody’s business correct) was the most cost effective way to make non-pollution based electricity. It turns out that in much of the world and essentially all of the US, commercial scale wind turbines can supply most or all our electricity in the required amounts (and at least 20 times over present demand) at the lowest cost of any renewable technology on a subsidy free basis. The only other renewable approach with the capability to supply all our country’s needs (and many times over) is solar (and photovoltaics in particular), but that is almost always a lot pricier by a lot when things like the same cost of money and “Made in USA” are employed in the cost of energy analysis. Onshore wind sourced electricity, especially when coupled to pumped hydroelectric energy storage systems like Blenheim-Gilboa, Niagara, Lewiston and the Seneca project on the NY-Pa border, also plays well with the other renewables – tidal, offshore wind, biomass, geothermal, PV and especially hydroelectric. In WNY, the cost to provide electricity with a modern commercial scale Low Wind Speed Turbine is about 11% of the average of PV units installed in NY in the last 2 years. But, PV is a great “make work” arrangement, with most employment coming from the installation (think roofers) aspects. PVs are pretty cool - they just sit and stare at the sun (for those rare days when clouds are absent) and crank out electricity - Einstein’s photoelectron effect (Nobel Prize #1).

So, electricity made at similar costs to the combination of coal plus natural gas that spikes prices to extremely profitable (for coal burners) levels that now mostly powers up WNY could be made renewably. The wind business could be the equivalent of another auto industry with respect to jobs and businesses in the manufacturing supply chain (8000 parts per turbine is a lot of supply chain) needed to make those systems, with a much smaller percentage of the workforce working on their installation compared to PV. But, they may often be visible to the naked eye! Large percentages of our population – especially in rural regions where most of our country’s land are exists – will be able to see them working. OMG!

If you are an evil type and want to take out renewables for the next decade so that you can milk those fossil fuel reserves for a whole lot of rentier profits, think about what you need to do. Since most of North America’s hydrocarbon resources are either in the form of “Canadian Crud” Tar Sands Sludge or else methane locked in in “tight shale or “tight sands”, the best play available is methane. But fracking for methane is expensive, and it runs into the “Wind Turbine Wall” (WTW). At prices north of $7.50 delivered per thousand cubic feet (kcf), it starts getting cheaper to make electricity with wind turbines across an increasingly larger percentage of the country. A gas fracker then runs into the horror of drilling and losing money. But if those infernal wind turbines could just be taken out of the picture…. At least for a decade, anyway, till those methane reserves get milked more, why, think of all the money to be extracted from an ever more unemployed (as in, no new manufacturing jobs) population that will only do as they are told if force-fed propaganda on a BIG LIE scale. Furthermore, when gas prices spike, the real profit centers become coal and old nuke based electricity. And do we seriously want to make those profitable, again, obscenely so when gas prices routinely zoom up and never quite make it back down to where they started from? Talk about one ugly prospect, both from an environmental, social and economic justice perspective.

Yes, the price to be paid to have pretty much all (~ 80%) of our electricity sourced from wind is a serious dent in our unemployment (1 million new manufacturing jobs within a decade) and a massive increase in our collective national wealth (via a $3 trillion capital investment in a decade). And while we are at it, there would be a serious drop in our CO2 pollution rate (by at least 60%), the elimination of fracking as a way to extract only methane, a heat pump industry even bigger than the wind biz (by perhaps 5), and probably the elimination of most oil imports as mass transit and more electric freight lines get built. And that’s just the first decade or so. Sound like a plan?

Ah, but there is a catch.  Making an average of 400 Gigawatts (delivered basis) from new wind turbines (in addition to the 20 GW now made) is around 500,000 new LWST of a 2 MW capacity rating, less if larger ones also get installed. We now have around 40,000 less efficient wind turbines averaging 1.5 MW of capacity and a net output of 33% of their rated capacity. There will be a lot more wind turbines to be installed if we go for this initial 500,000 new ones target, and not just as wind plantations way out in the Great Plains, like Kansas. By the way, farmers and most residents of Kansas REALLY like them, much to the horror of the ruling caste of (apparently) Koch whores. Wind turbine arrays work best when they are placed over a wide range of windy areas (and the US now has about half of its continental area in that realm) so that when the wind is not blowing decently in one area it is in another. Besides big, long distance HVDC lines get really expensive, and those also serve to shovel money down them to where the turbines are located in return for the electricity. In a lot of cases, it will make more sense to mate up local wind turbines (“singles” and “arrays”) with the pumped hydro potential of places like the Great Lakes, Ozarks, and the entire US East coastal mountain range (Georgia to Quebec) not to mention the pumped seawater potential of the California coastline.

The thing is, these wind turbines will be visible to tens of millions of people – the efficient ones are NOT small - and sometimes really, really rich people in their coastal or scenic inland trophy residences will see them. We see that taking place off of Long Island, where the electricity from a proposed wind farm located 30 miles offshore will be well over 3 times what it would be from “near shore turbines” such as those installed near the Swedish island of Karehamn. But the real test will come when roughly 18,000 x 2 MW Low Wind Speed Turbines (or 12,000 x 3 MW ones) get installed in NY – on average about one every 2.5 square miles of land for the “smaller” 2 MW ones and placed in roughly 10% of NY’s land area. Rich people will see them, and anti-renewable energy propagandists and others of the “bring on the Doom (of Global Warming)” scene will have a field day.

But, that is the REAL cost of going to an all renewable energy future for NY State – lots of people will SEE how MOST of our electricity is made, via those infernal spinners. Wind turbines can make all of the electricity needed for NY State at affordable prices – something that cannot be done with PVs. And doing a $100 billion for mostly onshore wind turbines, $25 billion for pumped hydro and $125 billion for GSHP capital upgrade on the state and paying this off over a 25 year period (actually 35 years, since turbines installed 10 years from now would get paid off 25 years later) is an awesome economic stimulant for … the now ever shrinking middle class. And making most of these locally actually makes more sense than “employing” pseudo-slaves in China and India, an “option” which could get imposed on us just so we can max out the regional unemployment potential and achieve “social goals” set by a tiny percentage of our oligarchic-type rulers. But seriously, what have those oligarchs and “oiligarchs” done for us lately, other than create a “hotel bubble” and to perpetuate dependency on a tiny fraction of Wall Street’s rigged “gambling” profits? Oh, and maintain our petroleum addiction via the ‘burbs.

Anyway that is how you can cure the mental diseases that are “Global Warming”, “middle class shrinkage”, ”deindustrialization” and “Peak Oil” more or less all at once, at least for NY’s share of these many Global Disasters now getting worse. It all boils down to a look, to “who owns the view”. It’s that simple and its something that cannot be quantified (what is a view worth, and to whom?) very easily, so it can be made incredibly complicated and convoluted, especially since our Main Stream Press seems to excel at such things (controversy sells, after all). But anyway, if we collectively keep our eye on the prizes (a stabilized Climate, a less unequal income distribution), this future that the Sci-Fi writers missed can come true. After all, the least we can do is to do our part of the Global problem. As for China and India, well, just threaten to stop buying their crap if they don’t can the coal consumption. Right now they can say with a straight face that NY/the USA really do set a bad example. And we do. But if we base most of the “cure” on wind energy, well, that gets rid of that issue. And so far, that is the fastest way to get the most done at the least cost, and by almost an order of magnitude versus the next available alternative (PV).

So, if we want to have a viable future in our view, it also will involve seeing a lot of wind turbines spinning. They won’t be viewable from everywhere, but unlike nowadays, they won’t be a rarity.  At core, the economics to make wind economically viable ARE political, an unsettling fact, but them’s the breaks. And if the economics of electricity production are not arranged to take advantage of long term predictable AND affordable prices with a negligible environmental impact, well, in this country and for much of the world, they just won’t be a happening thing. And that view of the future won’t be a pretty by a long shot…

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